As most new players realize, formulating a clear plan in regard to starting hands is an essential foundation of successful and profitable play. If we are not making profitable decisions at the outset, before the cards are dealt, it will be very difficult to do well.
Today, we're going to look at some strategies for selecting starting hands in a 10 person game. In later lessons, we will look at variations playing with less opponents, but it's full games that most people play at, and it's important to understand some of the concepts at a full table prior to tweaking the strategy to adjust for less players.
The first decision we're going to have to make is - around how many hands are we looking to play on average? Aside from the blinds, the percentage of players entering hands will range from 15-20% in the best games, to 40% and up in the weak ones. And to a large degree, we're defining the strength of game by this percentage.
It stands to reason that we would want to play less hands than our opponents, in order to have an advantage, whereby when we would be in a pot with a particular opponent, our starting point is going to be on average better than theirs, thereby we'll be more successful than they are, everything else being equal.
The first concept we need to look at is where our selection would place us overall in terms of the amount of opponents. Let's look at 3 different strategies. The first is choosing to participate in 3 out of 10 hands, the second 2 out of 3, and the third 1 out of 3. Now, given that there are 10 people being dealt cards, on average we're going to have the best hand 1 out of 10 times. If we play 3 out of 10, in 2 of those we will be at a disadvantage, and we will probably lose money. In the second example, half the time we will have the advantage and half the time we will not, and while this element of our game may not hurt us, it doesn't help us either. In the third case, where we're playing on average 1 out of 10, this is exactly in line with the probability of having the advantage, so we're maximizing our advantage here with this choice.
Now, of course, the blinds are going to factor into this, whereby with 1 out of 10 hands we're going to be putting money in the pot whether we like it or not, and on another, we're going to be contributing half the amount, where it's going to make sense to complete the small blind in some cases where the hand wouldn't have been worth playing, so our pre-flop percentage is going to be higher than 10% of course. We'll deal with playing the blinds in later lessons, and for now concentrate on when we're going to enter pots voluntarily.
The next thing to consider is position. Opponents who have premium hands may raise, and we actually want them to in these cases, so that we may benefit from this information. Early on, we want to be more careful with what we play, since we have less information about the holdings of others, and in later position we can be more liberal in our choices, because we have more information, and the likelihood that someone has something better will have diminished.
Another key element is the nature of our cards and how they tend to hold up to game play. Ideally, hitting either of our cards will keep us in the hand, which isn't the case with high cards and lower kickers. For example, if I have K8, I know that I'm going to have to hit the king and hope no one has a better kicker, whereby if I hit the 8, I'm probably going to have to fold if there are overcards and much action. So not only are high cards what I seek, I'm going to need 2 decently high cards.
So let's look at the obvious choices. High pairs are of course playable from any position. We'll define this as AA-JJ. The lower the pair though, the more we'll have to be concerned about overcards, but we will be starting out with a good hand here and in most cases we'll have the best hand on the board here.
Now, let's look at the medium pairs (77 to TT). The higher the pair the better of course. In most cases though, we're going to have to improve our hand to win, which most often means hitting a set. In no-limit, we can be more liberal about playing these, since the implied odds, the amount we can make when we hit, is going to be higher. In limit though, we're going to need to be more careful, because we're going to need a fair amount of players in the pot to pay us enough when we hit to make the play worthwhile. So the rule of thumb here is, the later the position we have and the more people in the pot, the better these hands become.
Next, we'll look at the high cards high kicker. This involves hands like AK, AQ, AJ, KQ. Of these, AK and AQ are going to be the strongest of course. We can pair either card in all of these cases and have a good hand, which is what we want.
Next comes AT and KJ. These are playable as long as we're not doing it from early position. We aren't keen about calling a raise with these hands, as generally this is indicative of us being beat. We'll often be able to win by hitting either card as well, which is important.
More marginal hands like QJs, QTs, JTs, and T9s are going to be reserved for late position plays without a lot of people in the pot. We're very concerned about overcards with these hands, and we don't want a lot of competition. Having our hands suited is going to be a benefit, but we don't really need them to be suited with the bigger cards, whereby with these we do, since by themselves they aren't quite strong enough.
While this is all going to depend somewhat on the competition and how they play, here's a quick hand guide summing up what has been discussed so far. Keep in mind that it is just a general guide however.
Early Position: AA KK QQ JJ TT AK AQ KQ
Middle Position: Add 99 88 AJ KJ
Late Position: Add 77 66 55 AT A9s KTs K9s QJs QTs JTs T9s
This will actually have us in a little less than 10% on average, but that's desirable, since this gives us a little more edge.
Now, it's all well and good to spit out a list like this, but this has been more a product of analysis rather than just guessing - in other words, which hands have been profitable over time in real game situations, not just some sort of computer analysis over which hands wins without any folding going on or any other aspects of the game which influence the outcome.
Keep in mind though that particular game situations may dictate we play a bit looser, or in some cases, a bit tighter than this. For instance, if the table is VERY loose, we can get away with a few more hands. Or if the table is very passive, we don't have to pay attention to position quite as much. Or if it is very aggressive, we're going to have to tighten up a bit more. However, generally speaking, these are the kinds of hands which which tend to make money at a full table, and give you a good starting reference point.